Applying the Matching Law to Behavior Intervention

By Shelley McLean, M.Ed, BCBA

bSci21 Contributing Writer

Sometimes I wonder if it’s just me . . .

Have you ever found yourself suggesting to a parent, caregiver, or partner professional that they should “ignore” a behavior as part of an intervention plan?  Let me give you an example.  Suppose you’ve been called in to a school to help a team develop a behavior support plan because an elementary school student is engaging in frequent loud swearing in the classroom.  Staff members have indicated that the behavior is disrupting the learning environment and they’ve been receiving complaints from other students in the class and from parents.  As you conduct an observation to see what the situation looks like, you notice that the learner you’re observing starts out working on an assigned task, then puts her pencil down and raises her hand.  The teacher, occupied helping another student, doesn’t appear to notice the learner’s raised hand, and after only a few seconds the learner puts her hand down.  She closes the book on her desk, shuffles her papers around, and then curses loudly.  Many of her peers stop what they’re doing and look in her direction, and the teacher immediately comes over and reprimands the student.  After the student utters a few additional choice words, the teacher is able to get her back on track with her work.  During your observation, you record several similar instances of this behavior.  If you’re anything like I am, you may have found yourself thinking, “if only the teacher could attend to the hand-raising and ignore the cursing . . .”

A significant body of research has shown that differential reinforcement procedures, which typically involve withholding reinforcement for an undesired behavior and providing rich schedules of reinforcement for an alternative more appropriate or socially acceptable behavior (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007), have demonstrated success in reducing problematic or interfering behaviors (Borrero et al., 2010; Neidert, Iwata, & Dozier, 2005).  In the example above, if the results of a functional assessment suggest that the swearing behavior of the student you are observing is sensitive to attention, either from peers or from the teacher, the inclination to recommend that the teacher and/or peers ignore the swearing and attend instead to more desirable behavior, such as hand-raising, certainly makes sense.  However, the reality is that in many applied settings – schools, preschools, daycares, group homes, etc… – it may not always be reasonable or even possible to ignore some types of problem behavior.  In an elementary school classroom, a teacher is unlikely to withhold attention for loud swearing due to its impact on the learning environment and on the other children who are present, even if extinction may be one component of an effective intervention.  If a behavior is potentially dangerous, as in the case of aggression or self-injury, even if the behavior is sensitive to attention, withholding that attention may not be possible, or even ethical, in many cases.

So what should a conscientious behavior consultant do and recommend in this type of a situation?  There is research to support a strategy that has its roots in the matching law.   The matching law suggests that when different schedules of reinforcement are available at the same time for different behaviors, individuals will allocate their behavior according to the relative rates of reinforcement available for each option (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007; Herrnstein, 1961; Reed & Kaplan, 2011).  Simply stated, we tend to engage in more of the behavior that produces the highest levels of reinforcement, and less of the behavior that produces less reinforcement.  However, researchers have discovered that, although behavior does tend to show a bias in favour of richer schedules of reinforcement, increasing the rate of reinforcement alone may not be enough to reduce problem behavior to acceptable levels (Borrero et al., 2010), at least not in the desired timeframe.

Building on the underlying principle of the matching law, researchers have investigated what might be referred to as “stacking the deck” (Tiger & Reed, 2004, p. 204; Vollmer, 2015) in favour of the behavior we want to see more of.  Instead of asking staff to “ignore” problem behavior when it is unlikely that it will happen or unreasonable to do so, they suggest teaching staff to minimize reinforcement for the problem behavior and maximize reinforcement for the desired behavior.  This strategy involves providing the lowest quality and smallest amount of the reinforcer for the shortest possible duration when the problem behavior occurs, and providing the highest quality, highest intensity reinforcement, for a much longer duration when the desired behavior happens (Athens & Vollmer, 2010).  So although the teacher may have to intervene to interrupt the student’s loud swearing immediately each time it happens, she can minimize the reinforcement by keeping the interaction as brief as possible and using the minimum response necessary to stop the behavior.  By contrast, when the student raises her hand, the teacher should run over to the student’s desk just as quickly as she would if the student were to curse, but provide a much higher-quality interaction for 2 or 3 times as long as she would if the student swore.  By teaching staff and caregivers to alter several dimensions of the reinforcer (latency, quality, duration) at the same time, instead of trying to convince them to ignore a problem behavior, it may be possible to provide them with an effective strategy that may also be more likely to be carried out with fidelity.

Have you utilized the matching law in your ABA work?  Tell us about it in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!


Athens, E. S., & Vollmer, T. R. (2010). An investigation of differential reinforcement or alternative behavior without extinction. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 43(4), 569-589.

Borrero, C. S., Vollmer, T. R., Borrero, J. C., Bourret, J. C., Sloman, K. N., Samaha, A. L., & Dallery, J. (2010). Concurrent reinforcement schedules for problem behavior and appropriate behavior: Experimental applications of the matching law. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 93(3), 455-469.

Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward. W. L. (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis (2nd  ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Herrnstein, R. J. (1961). Relative and absolute strength of response as a function of frequency of reinforcement. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 4, 563-573.

Neidert, P. L., Iwata, B. A., & Dozier, C. L. (2005). Treatment with multiply controlled problem behavior with procedural variations of differential reinforcement. Exceptionality, 13(1), 45-53.

Reed, D. D., & Kaplan, B. A., (2011). The matching law: A tutorial for practitioners. Behavior Analysis in Practice, 4(2), 15-24.

Vollmer, T. R. (January 8-9, 2015). New Directions in the Assessment and Treatment of Problem Behavior. Lecture, Fredericton, New Brunswick.

Tiger, J. H., & Reed, D. D. (2016). Translational and applied choice research.  In F. D. Digennaro Reed & D. D. Reed (Eds.), Autism Service Delivery: Bridging the Gap Between Science and Practice (pp. 193-208). New York, NY: Springer.

smclean-headshotShelley McLean, M.Ed, BCBA is passionate about empowering educators with an understanding of behavioural principles to give them the tools and the confidence to ignite the potential in all of their learners.  She is the Coordinator of the interprovincial Autism in Education (AIE) Partnership for the Atlantic Provinces Special Education Authority (APSEA) in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.  Shelley has worked as a classroom teacher, guidance counselor, high school administrator, itinerant ASD consultant, and provincial Learning Specialist for ASD and Complex Cases during her career in education, which spans more than 17 years.  She has also served as a part-time instructor for ABA courses at the University of New Brunswick and Western University in Ontario.  Shelley holds Bachelor degrees in Arts and Education, and a Master of Education degree in Counseling Psychology.  She completed a Graduate Academic Certificate in Applied Behavior Analysis from the University of North Texas and has been a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) since 2010.  You can contact her at [email protected]

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4 Comments on "Applying the Matching Law to Behavior Intervention"

  1. Great article! I posted it on our Fluency Factory FB page and hope it will be very helpful to teachers who are tuned in to our page. THANKS for a very helpful article.

  2. Attenuating and intensifying the quality of the reinforcer, shortening and extending the latency, and duration of when to present the reinforcer suits application settings more efficiently than incorporating differential reinforcement. Not only did I find shaping as the most ethical and efficient way to change behavior, but also more socially acceptable because there is no extinction bursts to address. Extinction bursts can become very aversive to other people surrounding the individual and can quickly pair you with aversiveness. Great article!

  3. This helps support the encouragement of pairing a denser reinforcement schedule with a response to encourage more appropriate school behaviors.

  4. Tristan Daeley MS BCBA | January 14, 2018 at 5:43 pm | Reply

    This article does a great job of incorporating effective behavior consultation strategies into the demanding environment of a classroom which may not have a history of applying ABA principles in a systematic way. I believe that implementation of this type of program has a much higher likelihood of success and completion with adherence to the program design Great stuff.

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